Dark Matter of the Writing Process

The thing about writing is that it draws from nebulous things that live in my head – memories, feelings, images and the words that put those together. But the real thing is they’re not actually things, but unthings, abstract nothing things swirled into a cloud of something, a story as it were, not building blocks but protons and ions, effervescence and frequencies, half like dark matter, a presence that can only be detected by its influence on other things.

My current project, Anori, has the following scene: Dee is driven by her ex-husband Tommy from Newfoundland back to NYC. The scene used to feature Dee’s Uncle Ralph; however the book needed less of Uncle Ralph and more of Tommy. The scene also requires a switch in scene, from California to Maine. The thematic elements will remain (distance from someone once loved) as well as key images, but the voice and setting need a 180 degree shift. And so the scene becomes a mangled corpse that has to be picked.

I could kill it all, wipe the slate clean, but I don’t want to do that. The dark matter of the old scene has an unthing I want to preserve. And scorched earth is stupid. Other things were hacked out. There is no more Dodgers game, no more sexy forest ranger, and no more porno shoot in the Hollywood Hills. (sigh)

I now have Dee and Tommy, still in love, but incompatible, stopping and starting in their conversation, exposing their history and feelings, afraid of saying anything to hurt the other but keen to let the other know what they still mean. There is much to mine from my own life here, long drives with things unsaid, guilt and pain and regret. This is the magic of the process, knowing the characters and direction and now searching out where it is they say what needs to be said.

Editing: Killing the Sexy Bits

You have to be in the right mindset to edit. A cruel focus is needed. No matter how great the scene, image or dialogue, if it’s not completely on point, it must go. They call it “killing the babies”, and I suppose it is something like that, even if that’s as self-centered as all hell.

Dee’s sexuality is key to her character, but it is a subtle thing in Anori, unlike My Bad Side, because it is more speculative fiction than psychological, and as much as sex might sell, her tryst with the Oregon Park Ranger is done, only to appear here.

The waves rolled up on the beach in a long rattling rush. She thought she could see someone in the distance and waited and then walked back along the path to the ranger’s cabin. There was a light. She went around the side and tried to look through the little window and then ducked through the underbrush, getting stuck for a minute and stood there stupidly like she had to go to the bathroom, and came around the corner.

The room was empty, just a brown fabric couch and a television left on. She waited. A truck came down the road and pulled up to the house. And then he was there, the Oregon Parks Ranger, his shirt undone. “You look lost. Can I get you a drink? I’ve got beer.

There was a bedroom at the end of the hall, strewn and cluttered, piles of books leaning against the walls, heaps of clothing in the middle. The bed had an old lacquered headboard and long faded wood down the sides. She took off his shirt and then his pants. She had a desperate burning inside, along her stomach and thighs and into her groin.

She wanted him to go faster but he pushed her hands back. He was naked, his penis at her breasts and held her shoulders. She looked up at his face and chest and the wooden beams and white ceiling above. She was rigid, arching her back, grabbing his legs. He moved in a long cycling motion, pushing up high, going too fast and then slow. She wanted that back and grabbed at him. He pressed down onto her stomach and held her neck. She pushed into him faster.

“Holy fuck.” It was more of a wheezing, not words, and she started laughing as she crawled over the books, and he pulled her back and there was only a tightness, her skin blood-rich, trying to make it more, keep it like that, harder, everything stretching out, her head tilting back, peering into the chasm, ready to fall, and then nothing.

Editing Mantra: Don’t Muddle with Drivel!

The story has to be simple. That’s all there is to it. Kill all extraneous characters. Kill all unnecessary settings. Kill all musings. All of them. Kill them all, Kurtz! Get to the point. What is the bloody message? Stick to that and only that. Don’t muddle with drivel! Nobody cares. That’s the only mantra of the edit. And so Uncle Ralph is gone. He does not exist anymore in this book. The Dakota Roadhouse has been trashed too.

The trip down the west coast has been dumped. No visit to the Devil’s Churn. No game at Dodger Stadium and no climactic scene at the porn house up in the Hollywood Hills, as good as I might have dreamed it was.

Onward to Greenland.

Killing Babies: The Hell of Editing

The thing that I love about this scene from Anori is the senseless of it. Dee takes Apollo out for a walk in Lower Manhattan three days after a hurricane has ground the city to a halt and is stopped by a lone police officer for not having her exotic animal license; she is arrested and Apollo impounded.

The problem with the scene is that not only does it not help develop Dee, but it doesn’t move the story forward. And at page 10, that is a major issue. And so her release from custody, another baby of mine, is dumped too.

It is almost painful to have to kill a scene. Actually it is painful. It’s a damn shame. I mean, to have made something that works so well, and then to kill it? What a complete waste. That’s how it seems. And the book is the thing.

My Editor’s Supervisor Too

The supreme editor decided to get in on the critical action: Master McPhedran; I’m writing to you because I know there’s a lot to handle with this radioactive material, but I hope you haven’t continued to think of it as being guided by a passion for a different style of writing. Andy spends a lot of time teaching in the letter, giving examples from other works to showcase a point, or explaining literary construction to the author. He does this very well (I’ve seen it go sideways before!) in that he comes off as very experienced, well-read and knowledgeable but never veers into talking down to the author. I know this is not particularly helpful to you. I was sorry to hear that the phone call wasn’t as fruitful as expected.

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I replied with vague decorum: Thank you for the email, Bridget. I understand and appreciate your references to radioactive material and your efforts to connect Andy’s edit to what it could mean to my work. I don’t agree, however, with the idea of it being a lot to handle or offering effective teaching. (I cringed at that, as I did at the image of Andy being thankful at my listening to ‘some’ of his guidance.) You have an enterprise to run, and the first order is to support the staff. The point is that Andy’s notes do not benefit my process. It isn’t personal. It is about the words. And sadly, in the end, the feedback is worth the same as I might get from a bartender – not to denigrate her. 

I am not expecting a response.

Fuck My Editor (Everyone Else Too)

I just reviewed the editor notes on my novel, Anori; which can be summarized thus: The book is not engaging. The reader has no reason to turn the page. There are major problems with the narrative structure, scene arcs, character and dialogue. None of it is working.

I called the editor today, hoping for some sort of clarity, a way to move forward.

“What can I do you for?” He was out of breath, a dog barking nearby.

“My book.”

“Oh yes, your book.” A door closed and another opened. “Any questions about my notes?”

There was a long pause. I thought about making the entire conversation like that, one long pause. It seemed to be what Andy wanted. “I am sensing acrimony.”

“Acrimony? No, Phed? Why would you say that?”

“Your notes, Andy.”

“My notes are not personal, Phed. They are questions the reader would have. I have no opinion on you, as a writer or a person.”

“Your notes are repetitively negative, Andy. It’s very unsatisfying, to put it mildly.”

“The notes are only my opinion. If the book is working in your head, then your book is working in your head. I won’t argue with that.”

“Look, Andy, I want to make the story work, obviously I want that, and I need criticism to move forward, but there is not one positive thing that you cited in the story.”

“I appreciate you put a lot of work into it, Phed.”

“That’s what I mean by unsatisfying comments, Andy. What is that supposed to mean to me? That you think I deserve a ribbon for putting work into it?”

“It’s poetic, isn’t it?” There was something else going on in the background, a coffee grinder or compactor. “I found your writing unsatisfying too.”

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“What does that even mean, Andy?”

“Your choices did not satisfy me as a reader.”

I was close to hanging up. “Okay, for one thing, you cite over and over again how my dialogue does not work, that characters don’t listen to each other.”

“Looks like we have a real bowl of unsatisfying here.”

I didn’t know if ‘unsatisfying’ was supposed to be a joke. “You didn’t like any of the dialogue? None of it?”

“It isn’t about what I like, Phed. This isn’t about what I like.”

“It seems like you’re speaking German and I’m speaking Italian.”

“Your characters don’t listen to each other.”

“I’m trying to do something different, Andy. Literary Science Fiction. Story arc and character development don’t fall into the same expectations.”

“The reader has to want to turn the page, Phed. They have to be satisfied.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

“Like I said–“

“Yeah, I got it. It’s not personal. You’re just the reader’s eyes.”

The conversation went around like that until I got sick of it and hung up. The worst of it was that I paid him $3000 for that very service. Yes, I paid him $3000 to tell me that the reader will not bother to turn the page. And what’s worse – worse than worst – is that I paid someone else another $2500 to work on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for this blog, which created no traction and hence no results. And so I’m now out $5500 with no prospects for readers on the horizon in either medium.

And what’s even worse (worse than worse than the worst) is that my wife now tells me that nobody reads blogs anymore. And so what am I even doing here? Oh, and what’s worse than that (yes, worse than worse than worse than the worst) is that nobody bothered to even read to this point, due to my unsatisfying sense of narrative, scene arc, character and dialogue, and so clicked off long ago. (Although if you did stay, I humbly thank you, and will buy you a drink when we meet again.)

Bio Tuesday: The Sacred Whore

The Sacred Whore is my first novel, the story of a group of prostitutes who kidnap a college basketball team to air their views on the dismal morality in the United States. It has its moments, mostly characters realizing themselves. But more than that, it was the dogged focus of getting those 446 pages written. And then transcribed to 706 pages, typed, double-spaced. And then edited down to 432. And again down to 365. And then adapted into a screenplay. And to have both rejected again and again. A harbinger of what writing would come to be.